In the Bible, Gilead was a place of refuge
for Jacob when he struggled with the angel, for the children
of Israel when they fought the Philistines and for King David
during his son Absolam’s rebellion. As one spiritual reads, "There
is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole."
In Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film "The Spitfire Grill," Gilead is a small, sleepy town in Maine where a young woman named Percy Talbott, recently released from prison, sets up a new life, and in the process, changes the lives of the town’s inhabitants.
The movie, which starred Ellen Burstyn as Hannah, owner of the Spitfire Grill, was called sappy and manipulative by some, uplifting and poetic by others. In fact, "Spitfire Grill" was originally commissioned by Gregory Productions with backing from the Sacred Heart League, a Roman Catholic organization that approached writer-director Zlotoff, a Jew, about his possible interest in collaborating on a film.
Several years later, Fred Alley (book and lyrics) and James Valcq (book and music) collaborated to turn the film into a musical, which opened at Playwright’s Horizons in the fall of 2001.
The most striking feature of The Gallery Players staging of "Spitfire Grill," through Jan. 30, is M.R. Goodley’s brilliant direction. Goodley, who seems to lean towards edgy musicals (her Gallery Players credits include "Floyd Collins" and "Assassins"), has a real flair for moving people around the stage meaningfully and making seamless transitions from dialogue to song. She also manages to take choppy scripts and make them float as smoothly as a sailboat in a gentle breeze.
But the second-most salient feature of "Spitfire Grill" is the questions it provokes: What in the world possessed Valcq and Alley when they converted the film into a musical? How did they think they could translate those breathtaking long shots of the countryside and those heart-wrenching close-ups of anguished faces in a stage production? Why did they believe mediocre music could make up for the loss of Zlotoff’s exquisite dialogue?
The stage play changes some important aspects of the plot (it even moves the story from Maine to Wisconsin) - in every case for the worse. While the film holds together and makes perfect sense, the play leaves puzzling questions at the end and loses much of the basic theme of redemption that is so evident in the film.
Certainly the score does not contribute greatly to the action. In fact, this reviewer often wished the singing would soon be over so the performers could get back to the business of telling the story. As for the music itself, it has a pleasing, folksy quality - sort of like Joni Mitchell on a not terribly inspired day - but it’s nothing anyone will be whistling in his shower.
Nevertheless, the Gallery Players has once again done a top-notch job producing a mediocre work. Timothy J. Amrhein’s set and Kathleen Leary’s costumes movingly capture the cold, barren landscape of Gilead, Wis. and the gentle poverty of its inhabitants. The cast is - without exception - outstanding.
Bettina Sheppard’s performance as Hannah Ferguson, the crusty old lady who owns the Spitfire Grill and takes in Percy (the excellent Libby Winters), is all the more astonishing considering that she came in to replace another actor one week before opening night.
Tina Marie Casamento, who plays Shelby Thorpe, a cohort at the grill, shows a real understanding of what it means to be a small-town woman. Jayne Maynard (who comes from Wisconsin and doubled as a dialect coach) adds the perfect touch of humor as the busybody postmistress Effy Krayneck. She also has the best singing voice in the show.
Paul Martin Kovic, who plays Sheriff Joe Sutter, the male love interest, and Eric Hanson, who plays Caleb Thorpe, Hannah’s nephew, have the difficult task of playing men in a show with a feminist bent. They do so with sensitivity and spunk.
Patrick Toon, as the visitor, is eloquent without words.
It’s doubtful that many people will leave this show wiping their eyes, as many moviegoers apparently did. The format and the script just don’t allow for it. But the Gallery Players’ production is both entertaining and engrossing.
The Gallery Players’ production of "The Spitfire Grill" runs through Jan. 30, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and children under 12. The Gallery Players theater is located at 199 14th Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.